Cook County Board of Commissioners Passes Ordinance Seeking to Create Protections for People Paying Money Bonds
Yesterday, the Cook County Board of Commissioners passed an ordinance intended to reduce negative impacts of clerk’s fees and other court costs on impoverished Black and Brown communities who pay the vast majority of money bonds in Cook County. This ordinance, if fully implemented, will direct the Cook County Clerk’s office to return money to any third party that pays bond for an individual incarcerated in Cook County.
When this ordinance was originally introduced in December 2018, it protected only nonprofits who pay bond and not individuals who post bond for loved ones. Our organization, Chicago Community Bond Fund, has paid nearly $1.5 million in bond to free more than 260 people from Cook County Jail or house arrest with electronic monitoring since we began operating in 2015. In our nearly four years of operation, we have never pursued special protections for nonprofit bail funds, recognizing both that individuals pay the majority of money bonds in Cook County and that bail funds should not be institutionalized.
The majority of people paying money bonds are Black women who are also low-income. When testifying about the impact of the ordinance, the Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court estimated that it could lose as much as $4.7 million in income annually if no longer permitted to retain money out of bonds posted by people other than the accused person themself. CCBF’s mission is to end money bond in Cook County, thus ending the requirement that bail funds or individuals pay bond. Helping pay bail for people who can’t afford it is a necessary act of solidarity, but it is not a solution to systemic injustices. Every bond paid by CCBF or another bail fund is a policy failure—the person helped should never have been incarcerated because they lacked access to wealth. The central harm of money bonds is not the clerk’s fees or court costs that are deducted, but that the money is required to purchase the freedom of someone who is presumed innocent.
Over the course of the last several months, CCBF and our partners in the Coalition to End Money Bond met with Cook County commissioners, including ordinance sponsors Larry Suffredin and Stanley Moore, to propose amendments to the ordinance that would try to protect all people paying bond for their loved ones. We are grateful to the commissioners for their openness to these proposals, which were eventually accepted. The version of the ordinance passed today seeks to ensure that no one, whether an individual or non-profit organization, paying bond for someone in Cook County Jail is financially penalized for doing so.
Nevertheless, we urge the county board to explore additional and more substantive measures to reduce the negative impact of money bonds on Cook County residents. As dozens of courts around the country have concluded, pretrial incarceration due simply to lack of money is unconstitutional. In 2017, the Circuit Court of Cook County adopted General Order 18.8A, which says no one is supposed to be detained in Cook County Jail due to a simple inability to pay bond. Nevertheless, the unconstitutional practice of wealth-based pretrial incarceration persists. As of August 15, 2019, approximately 1,960 people were locked up in Cook County Jail solely because they could not pay a money bond—34% of the total number of people in jail. To truly address the devastating harms of pretrial incarceration, the county board should take action to ensure no one is incarcerated due to an unaffordable money bond; every such person has been cleared for release by a judge and their ongoing detention is a source of significant legal and financial liability for the County.
While returning more money at the end of a case limits some of the negative impact of money bond on Black and Brown communities, it does nothing to help the almost 2,000 people who remain incarcerated in Cook County Jail on money bonds that their loved ones cannot afford right now. In addition, the requirement of paying money bonds often creates significant hardships by diverting money from rent, groceries, and other essential needs, regardless of whether the money is returned months or years later at the conclusion of the case. The county and state must take further steps to ensure that no one is incarcerated simply because they can’t afford to pay a money bond. Philanthropic endeavors, no matter how well-intentioned, will not end mass incarceration. To end wealth-based pretrial incarceration in Cook County, we must change the policies that fill our jail with impoverished Black and Brown people in the first place, and we encourage the County Board to continue moving toward true justice by promoting and protecting our communities’ pretrial freedom.